In ‘Defiance’ of Nazi invaders

In the freezing forests of Belarus, as the Nazis swept through Europe, handfuls of Jewish refugees banded together under the leadership of the Bielski brothers to survive the killing winter and beyond. But they didn't just survive; they struck back, attacking German soldiers and collaborators, performing acts of sabotage and supporting other partisan groups. All told, the Bielskis are said to have rescued about 1,200 Jews.

And you've probably never heard of them until now.

"So many things were injunctions to this piece of history," said Ed Zwick, director, co-producer and co-writer of “Defiance,” which chronicles the struggles of the community that sprang up in that forest.

"Surprisingly, many of the survivors are loath to talk about it. The Bielskis too -- I've gotten to know the family, and the [brothers'] sons say their parents had to be pushed; they didn't want to talk about it. People would come up and say, 'You know, your father saved my life.' Eventually, it all became revealed to them."

Daniel Craig,“Defiance,” Liev Schreiber “Defiance,” and Jamie Bell play the three adult brothers, farmers and sometime troublemakers reluctantly transformed into guardian -- and avenging -- angels. Zwick ("Blood Diamond," "Glory") describes the popular image of Jewish resistance as generally limited to the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto uprising; he was presented with ample evidence to the contrary at a "Defiance" screening for families of survivors at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage.

"They had a map that showed all the places in which there had been resistance," he said with some residual amazement. "It was ubiquitous. It was usually thwarted and futile. But in fact, there were thousands, many of whom joined the Russian partisans."

Zwick, bearded, slightly rumpled, looking and sounding like the cool professor, said in his Santa Monica offices that he and co-writer Clayton Frohman had spent 10 years on the project, knowing that to get a drama of this scale made, everyone -- the stars, the production team, the crew -- would have to take steep pay cuts and endure some rough weeks in ugly conditions. The film, which opens Dec. 31, convincingly re-creates the misery the refugees suffered through.

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